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  • Who owns American English? GM recalls every Chevy ever made, then says "Never mind."

    A classic Chevy with a classic Coke
    A classic Chevy with a classic Coke

    On Tuesday, June 8, in a memo to Chevrolet Division employees in Detroit, General Motors announced the most massive recall in automotive history, ordering the replacement of Chevy, one of oldest and most common American brand nicknames, with Chevrolet: "We'd ask that whether you're talking to a dealer, reviewing dealer advertising, or speaking with friends and family, that you communicate our brand as Chevrolet moving forward." Two days later, GM canceled the recall.

    Calling for brand consistency, the recall memo cites Coke and Apple as well-known examples of consistent branding, though as the New York Times pointed out, Coke is a nickname for Coca Cola, and Apple products tend to be called, not by their corporate moniker, but by individual product names such as Mac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. General Motors, which also goes by the name GM, explained, "Why is this consistency so important? The more consistent a brand becomes, the more prominent and recognizable it is with the consumer," as if customers might think Chevy and Chevrolet were two different cars.

    The Times further reported that GM backed up its recall of the name Chevy with fines for employees: "A sort of cuss jar -- a plastic ‘Chevy’ can -- has been placed in the hallway. Every time someone uses ‘Chevy' rather than Chevrolet," employees were expected to put a quarter in the can.

    But faced with a combination of ridicule and customer loyalty to the Chevy brand, on Thursday, June 10, GM retracted its 2-day-old Chevy recall, calling the recall memo "poorly worded." Customers and fans can once again use "Chevy," though employees are apparently still expected to refer to "Chevrolet" so as not to confuse the nonanglophone market where Chevy hopes to expand its sales.

    Brand names are jealously guarded in the world of commerce, where they are typically capitalized and followed by a trademark symbol like ™ or ®. Xerox regularly reminds the public that xerox cannot be a verb. Although most people ignore that reminder, the company wants you to say 'make a photocopy on a Xerox-brand photocopier,' words which don't trip lightly off the tongue.

    Brand names that have lost trademark status and gone generic represent a loss of business to brand owners. These former brands include aspirin, linoleum, shredded wheat, thermos, and zipper, not to mention the very definer of words like 'trademark,' Webster’s, a name that is now generic for any English dictionary, though you won’t find any dictionary defining it that way.

    On the other hand, brand names that have become stripped down or simplified –- like Coke from Coca Cola, or KFC from what used to be Kentucky Fried Chicken –- are often embraced by the manufacturer, to the point where people forget that KFC derives from Colonel Sanders (and are consequently puzzled by the picture of the colonel often found on the ads or the product packaging), and the folks at GM seem to have forgotten that Coke was a simplified version of Coca Cola (of course the folks at Coca Cola are probably none too happy that in the South, coke has become a generic term for any carbonated soft drink, even in Atlanta, where Coke has its corporate headquarters).

    In yet another crass display of brand-name ownership, Google has begun arguing that google isn't a verb, though a google search for google returns 2.18 billion hits, and a search for "google as a verb" gives 4.47 million. And just because it owns the name iPod (294 million hits), Apple also wants to control everyone's use of the word pod (221 million hits).

    Google and Apple are still making plenty of money while the rest of us google our information or use the word pod to refer to everything from vegetables to space ships. The Chevy recall shows the legal power that can be wielded by the owners of words referring to commercial products. But the cancellation of that recall shows that the real owners of words aren't manufacturers or their lawyers, but the ordinary people who use those words for their own ends on a daily basis. After all, a Google search in response to GM's memo shows 47 million hits for Chevy. The word is simply too big to fail.

    Although GM now admits that it may be impossible to make us switch from Chevy to Chevrolet, "moving forward" (that common phrase is actually a Toyota trademark), Google also returns 121 million hits for Chevrolet, not to mention 202 million for Toyota, the unstoppable car maker which despite problems with unexplained acceleration sped past Chevy as the world's most popular car brand. And although Toyota doesn't offer a Xerox machine as an after-market option on its cars, many Chevys and Toyotas offer brand synergy, with iPod hookups as standard equipment, not to mention multiple beverage holders for drivers and passengers to store their cans of Coke.

    Toyota moving forward logo

    Trademark slogans can help customers recognize a brand, or make fun of it

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